Secretive research monkey facilities come under scrutiny in Florida
As other developed countries back away from primate research, one Florida
county is about to become home to more research macaques than humans
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A long-tailed macaque sits in his enclosure at an unspecified monkey farm in
Laos. Research monkeys are often held in "appalling" conditions, according to
the BUAV Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images
A series of events has put a tiny Florida county of less than 40,000 residents
at the center of national and international controversy regarding monkey
breeding and research. They include lawsuits, protests and federal complaints,
and threaten to put southern Florida's Hendry County on the map for the wrong
Animal Legal Defense
Fund (ALDF), a Northern California-based nonprofit organization, has sued to
block the development of a new breeding facility that would allegedly house up
to 3,200 macaque monkeys. That facility would be in addition to the county's
three existing facilities, where local authorities have recently arrested
multiple protesters for trespassing.
An Ohio-based activist group has also filed a complaint with the US Department
of Agriculture after staff at one lab, Primate Products, found three macaque
monkeys dead from electrocution. The complaint urges the USDA to revoke the
facility's license to sell monkeys for research.
The British Union for the Abolition of
Vivisection (BUAV) has also gotten involved, arguing that macaques caught in
the wild on the African island of Mauritius are used to produce offspring that
are then sent to Florida, and Primate Products.
"The trapping and removal of wild primates from their natural habitat and social
groups has a substantial negative impact on these individuals," says BUAV
spokeswoman Sarah Kite. "Over the years, official bodies and organizations have
called for a move away from this practice."
Macaques sit on a snow covered tree at Wulingyuan National Park in China this
month.Photograph: Xinhua /Landov / Barcroft Media
The county seat of LaBelle only has around 4,600 residents, meaning that the
number of monkeys in the area could soon overtake the number of residents.
It's hardly used to being the center of attention, says Michael Budkie, whose
organization, Stop Animal
Exploitation Now, filed the January complaint with the USDA after three
monkeys were electrocuted. It is his second such complaint in the last year.
"It's unusual that there's so much activity (surrounding primate breeding and
research) in one place … making (these facilities) the focus of opposition,"
Animal Legal Defense Fund's day in court is 5 March. Nick Atwood and six other
protesters who were arrested 22 November for allegedly trespassing on the site
of the Mannheimer
Foundation, a research facility, are scheduled to appear in court 12 March.
The lawsuit alleges that county should not have approved a project that would
bring monkeys to a facility still in the planning stages without public notice
or input, violating Florida's open government law.
Chris Berry of the ALDF says his organization has filed the suit on behalf of
area residents, who feel they should have had a say in the decision to allow the
facility in Hendry County. "We're concerned about facilities involved in animal
suffering being in compliance with the law (and) care about community
involvement in decision-making processes," he said.
County spokeswoman Electa Waddell says the lawsuit is "totally without merit".
She says: "None of the meetings or communications involved in this decision
violated the Sunshine Law." County staff studied the proposal and recommended
that it be accepted, according to Waddell.
Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First
Amendment Foundation, says she doesn't understand why the county approved
the facility the way it did. "Why didn't they let the public know they were
doing this? This is what I find alarming," she says.
A wild Rhesus monkey grins while up in a tree in Silver Springs, Florida. A
huge population of wild monkeys is sweeping across Florida - after being
introduced during the filming of Tarzan. There are now estimated to be hundreds
of Rhesus monkeys roaming the sunshine state - all descended from three pairs
released in the late thirties. Photograph: Graham McGeorge / Barcroft Media
It is not clear who is behind the proposed facility. A company called Primera
has published a letter to the community in a local newspaper attempting to
alleviate the public's concerns. But protestor Nick Atwood supplied the Guardian
with a document that appears to show that Primera is managed by a Chicago-based
company called PreLabs.
PreLabs didn't respond to requests for comment. Primate Products president and
chief operating officer Thomas J Rowell also declined to comment.
Last month, businessman and conservationist Ady Gil purchased approximately
1,250 monkeys for an estimated $2m from a breeding facility in Israel. The
country has cracked down on monkey breeding for research, and some
have reported that the animals were about to be transferred to a facility in
Florida. It is not clear whether Gil's purchase of these monkeys will have any
effect on the opening of Primera's venture.
Macaques can be sourced from all over the world, adding to opponents'
concerns about the dangers of monkey-breeding centers in spreading disease.
According to one of the complaints filed against Hendry County:
Unlike domestic livestock, non-human primates are known carriers of a wide array
of serious infectious diseases such as Ebola, Herpes B, tuberculosis, and
parasites that may be transmitted to humans. In fact, macaques have been
responsible for outbreaks of an Ebola strain in United States research
facilities, and macaques have also escaped from other Florida breeding
facilities in the past resulting in bites and other injuries.
Michael Budkie, a former primate research worker, has been pushing to get
primates out of labs since 1986. If the Primera facility does wind up housing
around 3,000 monkeys, as suggested by its rudimentary website, it would be
unusual, he says: "Facilities of this size do not open regularly."
Atwood, who works for the Animal
Rights Foundation of Florida, says he is "concerned about our state's
reputation, and the economy being based on industries involved in animal
suffering". He also notes that the proposed Primera facility raises quality of
life issues, since it is close to residential areas.
The USDA's response to Budkie's complaints about Primate Products could include
follow-up calls to the company for more information, or a site visit, says
spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa. The agency can then give the company a chance to
enter into compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, which governs treatment of
monkeys in captivity for breeding and research. It can also levy fines of up to
$10,000 for each act of noncompliance.
But there is no deadline for the agency to respond. "We want to make sure we're
thorough," Espinosa says. "We take as much time as needed."
Kari Bagnall notes that many research facilities in recent years have "retired"
monkeys from experiments, prompting sanctuaries like
Jungle Friends, where she is
executive director, to grow in size. Her Gainesville, Florida, center is home to
207 monkeys, with an additional 90 scheduled to arrive in the next six months.
"The release of these monkeys sends welcome signals of shifting beliefs about
the ultimate fate of monkeys in research," Bagnall wrote in an email. "However,
the excitement is dampened when we hear of a new breeding facility expecting to
house 3,200 monkeys."